When John Hutchins purchased the building at 1711 Main St. in Niagara Falls in a public auction, he had not been allowed inside the structure to assess its condition. When he finally made it through the door, his worst nightmare came true.
"It was a mess," Hutchins recalls. "There were holes in the ceiling. The plaster was destroyed."
That was in 2007. By 2009, Hutchins had sunk $3 million into the former Dome Theatre, rechristened it the Rapids Theatre and transformed a "battle-scarred" piece of Western New York history into one of the most ornate concert clubs in the region.
In December, Hutchins and his team will celebrate the third anniversary of the reborn Rapids Theatre. This week, three highly anticipated and stylistically divergent shows drive home the point – the Rapids represents a success story in every way.
Tonight, iconic British alternative rocker, poet and activist Morrissey will perform to a sold-out crowd; Sunday, former Ozzy Osbourne
guitarist-turned-bandleader Zakk Wylde will bring his revered Black Label Society to the club; and on Tuesday, reunited alt-rock icon Primus brings its "Primus in 3D" tour to the venue for a show that is all but sold out.
These are big concerts for a general admission theater (mostly standing room, with seating in the balcony) with a capacity of 1,700.
The concert market in Western New York is crowded and potentially treacherous, particularly during the summer months, when abundant free and soft-ticketed shows compete for consumer attention. Hutchins knew from the get-go that he wanted his new investment to "reflect some of the similar buildings in places like Boston and New York – the old Fillmores and Winterland, the legendary places." Toward that end, he sought to blend "a practical environment for fans and artists alike," with what he giddily describes as "opulence – the place is breathtaking to look at, from the gorgeously rebuilt plaster all over the ceiling and walls, to the massive rectangular bar, to the ornate greenrooms we created for the artists."
Hutchins freely admits that he's "a real estate developer who loves to restore buildings, not a concert promoter." He knew from the beginning that he would either have to lease the property, or find someone who could bring the right artists into the picture. Enter promoter David Taylor, who had briefly booked shows at the room when it was still known as the Dome, but left. "It was embarrassing," he said. "I'd book bands in there, and the place was falling apart around them."
Taylor met with Hutchins and they hit it off. "Dave was booking bands in here I wasn't even familiar with, and the shows were selling out," Hutchins recalls. Within a short time, Taylor had been granted exclusive booking rights to the room. One of his first shows, headlined by the Deftones, ?was a sellout.
"It's an honor to book this room. The bands come here, they're blown away by the experience, and they want to come back," says Taylor, who also books the annual summer Labatt Canal Concert Series in Lockport and does exclusive booking for the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda and the Armory in Rochester.
Part of the positive artist experience involves the abundant in-house sound, video and lighting equipment. Hutchins invested in improving the acoustic qualities of the room, adding sound-absorbent paneling and a state-of-the-art PA.
"The place sounds completely amazing when it's full," he insists.
Several touring artists agree. Taylor recalls Stone Temple ?Pilots singer Scott Wieland waxing ecstatic about the Rapids ?following his band's show there last summer. Big Sugar leader Gordie Johnson proposed the idea of his group becoming ?a house band at the Rapids, performing once a week at the venue, "and he was totally serious," says Taylor.
Hutchins remembers country star Eric Church wanting to return to the venue after having sold it out twice, "but he'd just become too big – he'd outgrown the place." Taylor says that modern metal band Five Finger Death Punch saw pictures of the restored and renovated Rapids online and asked their agent to book them in the room.
"We want this place to feel like a break from the road when bands come here to play," Taylor says. "They should feel like they're on vacation. From the catering to the greenrooms, to the experience on the stage itself, this should be a gig they remember. So far, that's exactly what's happening."
Hutchins adds that the goal has always been to provide both an "artist-friendly and a fan-friendly environment."
"For fans, that starts with the patrolled parking areas we've provided, continues inside with the easily accessed and fully staffed bar, and then hits the jackpot with the great sight lines and excellent live sound," Hutchins says. "We want people to remember their time here as their greatest concert experience."